Discrimination or Reverse Discrimination in an HOA-You Be the Judge!

Discrimination or Reverse Discrimination in an HOA-You Be the Judge!


A reader sent me a question, well actually a question-and-answer, which is very thought-provoking. I had to stop what I was doing today not only to think about it, but to write about it. What the reader sent me was a Q & A from the LA Times Homeowner Association column. The “A” frightened her. It didn’t surprise me. Other readers have sent me Qs and As from the LA Times that have scared me too! I remember the good old days-when for many years-the Homeowner Association Q and A column was written by Jan Hickenbottom. She served as a good example for me because her writings were informative and balanced. Gone are the good old days I guess. It feels to me like there is a definite slant in the Q and A column but someone else might feel differently. We all analyze things based on our own perspectives and it is only when you can truly see through someone else’s eyes who has a different perspective that you might come to question your own reasoning or take on something. That is what has happened for me as a result of this reader’s email. Here it is:

“I just read this article from the L.A. Times today and find it frightening and would like your thoughts.  I never knew this could happen.


Our development is in an area that has a fast-growing immigrant population, and most owners and board directors don’t speak English. The management company now also has non-English-speaking employees.


Management conducts board meetings and provides minutes and other board actions in another language. Also, the board fails to follow association rules for providing meeting notices, agendas, budgets and financial reports, and it ignores quorum requirements.


What do the few English-speaking owners do when everyone else speaks another language? Can management legally act in place of the board? Is there a law saying we have to speak English? Can anything be done about this, or do I have to move?


Answer: The United States has no national language, and although English is the official language of California, this pertains only to official state business, not the operation of a homeowner association. Because there is no law making English mandatory or preferred, it is unclear whether an association could take any steps to require its business to be conducted in English.”


I can just imagine what kind of range of responses people might have to this situation because emotions come into play. Some people will be up in arms because they come from the belief that if people want to come from other countries to America, they ought to learn how to speak the language. The person who sent me the email is up in arms because she could not have imagined that any homeowner association in America would choose another language as its primary language, and basically shut out anyone who speaks English only. The question is interesting from the perspective of pondering whether it might be discrimination or reverse discrimination. There have been situations where Caucasian males have sued feeling they were excluded from jobs or positions, or grant opportunities for education because they were white males and were beat out by a person of some other race or a female because they were not a minority even though they were equally or better qualified for the job or the scholarship or the grant. I’m not even going to go into a discussion as to whether there is any discrimination involved in the question. Rather, I’m going to go into the thought-provoking aspects.


My own personal first response, coming from the fact that I am Caucasian and have only one language I speak fluently, which is English, was “Wow, that must feel terrible, not to know what is going on at a meeting or be able to understand what is happening with Association management and operations. I wouldn’t like that very much.”


My next thought was “Wow, now I understand how the minorities feel in associations where not only is English the only language used, but translators are banned from the meetings. It must feel terrible.” In fact, I have seen it once specifically when an HOA board came to me wanting an opinion that they could prevent a signer from attending the meeting to assist a deaf owner. I would not give them that opinion, so they either went to someone else or just ignored my feedback. I understand that subsequently the deaf owner went to FEHA who had a field day of it and that in addition to the Board having to take some discrimination classes, the association had to pay the owner $30,000. I don’t have a case citation for that, but I believe it to be true.



The answer given by the LA Times person might be interesting but is not really an answer that will help anyone.  A homeowners association is a private entity which could determine the language it wants to use as its primary language. The words “ it is unclear…” are clearly lawyer waffle words commonly used when we don’t have a ready answer. But to say, “it is unclear whether an association could take any steps to require its business to be conducted in English…” kind of misses the point. I think it’s obvious that an association could take steps to require its business be conducted in English, and that is what occurs, whether ever stated or not, in probably 99.9% of the homeowner associations in the United States. However, the balancing measure would be whether such an HOA would then discriminate against an owner by preventing them, for example, the right to bring an interpreter to a meeting so they know what is being said. A non-English speaking person who owns a home in an HOA should have the right to do what they need to do to understand what board and management is doing.


But wait, is that enough? I think that’s reasonable. I don’t think it’s reasonable to prevent someone from using their own resources to provide for translation of a language they don’t understand, especially when it involves what may be their life’s biggest asset. But I think it’s even better, especially when there is a considerable contingent of non-English-speaking owners in the HOA to investigate whether there is a way either by contribution of voluntary services, or reasonably compensated services, to embrace the diversity and take measures to encourage and assist with understanding.


And in the situation which is the subject of the question in the LA Times article, likewise, if there is an HOA consisting of a great majority of non-English-speaking owners and they get into control of the Association, that they should make some accommodation for the English speaking owners. If they do not, they should allow the English-speaking owners to have translators and I would bet there are members of the Association that would be willing to serve as translators at meetings if someone would only put it out to the membership as a request.

No HOA benefits when a contingent of people in the Association is segregated from the rest. Segregation leaves the minority with very few options. The ones I can think of off of the top of my head are not beneficial. The minority can become apathetic, become combative, disruptive, or ignore the rules, claiming they didn’t understand them. None of those things is helpful. It’s the same kind of thing when a HOA board or the members in the HOA ostracize tenants. That attitude seems to perpetuate violations of the Association rules and some of those violations escalate to the need for legal services. A pittance of a portion of the money that could be saved from by avoiding any legal battle would go a long ways toward supporting some kind of services within the Association to assist those who have difficulty understanding the governing documents, the rules, and the governance is itself of the HOA.


Now, I will get off my soapbox and go back to work.


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